No, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not “stepped back” from his election-campaign statement that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, media reports to the contrary notwithstanding. Nor was his campaign vow to prevent a Palestinian state a reversal of the 2009 speech in which he his first expressed rhetorical support for the principle of a two-state solution. Netanyahu, in fact, has been entirely consistent; it’s the U.S. media and political establishment’s interpretation of his position that has changed.
Netanyahu built his political career in the 1990s in opposition to the Oslo Peace Process and the principle of trading “land for peace” with the Palestinians, and his Likud party has traditionally rejected the principle of Palestinian statehood west of the Jordan River. That’s why his Bar-Ilan speech in 2009, where he spoke for the first time of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, raised eyebrows — and, it must be said, wishful thinking — in Washington.
Standing U.S. policy required settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution, and an Israeli government avowedly opposed to that goal put it on the wrong side of Washington’s Middle East policy. But those who imagined the Bar-Ilan speech as an historic turnaround had failed to hear the conditions Netanyahu put on accepting a Palestinian state: It would have to accept continued Israeli control of its borders and airspace; forego the sovereign right to maintain the military means to defend itself; accept continued Israeli control over occupied East Jerusalem and other territory conquered in 1967; relinquish the right of Palestinian refugees driven out of Israel in the war of 1948 to return. Oh, and, Palestinian leadership would also have recognize the State of Israel as “the national homeland of the Jewish people,” despite the fact that one fifth of Israel’s citizens are not Jewish, and that the majority of Jewish people had freely chosen to live as citizens of other countries.
So when Netanyahu said “Palestinian state” in 2009, he also made clear that he meant something quite different from the international consensus on the need for an independent, sovereign Palestinian state based on the 1967 boundaries with East Jerusalem as its capital — terms he explicitly rejected in his May 2011 speech to the U.S. Congress. Moreover, as his father, Ben Zion Netanyahu explained immediately after the 2009 speech, appearing alongside the prime minister in a TV interview designed to assuage fears among the Likud faithful that Bibi had betrayed a core party principle, “He supports the kind of conditions they would never in the world accept. That’s what I heard from him. Not from me. He put forth the conditions. These conditions, they will never accept them — not even one of them.”
A number of Likud leaders made clear at the time and subsequently that the rhetorical acceptance of a two-state solution as a distant goal was a tactic designed to deflect international pressure. The proof of the pudding would be in facts on the ground, and when it came to those, the Obama Administration found Netanyahu determined to deepen and expand the occupation through continued construction of illegal settlements.
It was during last year’s Gaza conflict that Netanyahu made more explicit that which had been implied by the conditions he’d previously outlined. Speaking in Hebrew at a press conference last July, Netanyahu was quoted as saying “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”
The implication was unmistakable, wrote Times of Israel editor David Horovitz: “He made explicitly clear that he could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank,” because of the risk to Israel’s security that would imply.
To the list of conditions Netanyahu outlined in 2009, he now added a broad pacification of the region to his satisfaction.
“He wasn’t saying that he doesn’t support a two-state solution,” Horovitz wrote. “He was saying that it’s impossible. This was not a new, dramatic change of stance by the prime minister. It was a new, dramatic exposition of his long-held stance.”
So, Netanyahu’s campaign statement that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch was not, in fact, a retreat from his 2009 position. He was merely making clear that the conditions he’d set for the emergence of any Palestinians state would not be realized for the foreseeable future.
So, as he explained to NPR in an interview broadcast Friday, on the question of Palestinian statehood, “what I said was that under the present circumstances, I said today it's unachievable because I had laid out very clearly what my conditions were for a two-state solution in the 2009 speech I gave at Bar-Ilan University. And I haven't changed; I haven't retracted that speech, at all. I said that the implementation of that vision is not relevant right now.”
Netanyahu is happy to embrace the U.S. goal of a two-state solution, but only under what he considers ideal conditions that may or may not be achieved sometime in the future. He has not flip-flopped at all. A careful read of his statements since 2009 has made clear to anyone expecting any progress in the present — or foreseeable future — toward creating the Palestinian state envisaged by the international consensus that Netanyahu has never left the rejectionist camp.